Sonnenberg: We Shouldn’t Build Wherever We Want

By Kristiane Sonnenberg

Americans have a pioneering spirit. We’ve gone to the moon and are currently exploring the deepest reaches of the ocean. Our country spans the width of an entire continent. This drive to expand has a dark side, however. In our drive to expand westward, we massacred Native Americans and used slaves to work the land. We overused natural resources and polluted the water and air. These abuses stem from the idea that the Earth is ours to conquer and that the human spirit of ingenuity and expansion is enough to conquer any obstacle. Today, this overconfidence manifests in our belief that we can build anywhere we want without any regard for natural barriers. We build on beaches and mountains, in deserts and tundras. While we have the technology and resources to do so, the consequences of building on extreme terrain can be severe.

John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight’s “Floods” episode showcased a particularly egregious example of building without regard to natural barriers. One house located at the Gulf Shore was built on stilts on a beach, six feet away from the ocean. The property had a high risk for flooding and hurricane damage. When one buyer expressed concern about the potential for damage, another buyer replied “that’s what insurance is for.” The mentality that it’s okay to build anywhere, even on literal shifting sands, so long as one has insurance, is dangerous and negligent. Property can be repaired and replaced if you have enough money, but residents themselves are endangered by living in the direct paths of hurricanes.

Closer to home, we can consider one mountain neighborhood in Logan, Utah that only has one access road. When a wildfire drew close, the residents became stuck at a choke point on this sole road. In trying to secure privacy and the best views of the mountains, the urban developers put residents in danger. We’ve seen similar fire danger these past few weeks as, according to the Utah Wildfire Info website, there are currently 12 active wildfires around the state. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that as of July 5, the Dollar Ridge fire had destroyed 90 homes and threatened 1,000 more. Ridges and open, dry plains are prone to fires, especially during droughts. The residents of Dollar Ridge are not responsible for their homes being destroyed in the fire. The mass destruction of property should make us think about whether we should continue building in areas prone to fires. If we can avoid such a massive loss of property and the accompanying risk to firefighters, we should do so.

Our modern technology and optimization of resources mean that we can build wherever we want— whether it’s on a sandy beach or a mountainside. The accompanying natural hazards of hurricanes and fires mean that we need to consider whether we should build wherever we want. By building in hazardous areas, we put both life and property at risk. Americans’ pioneering spirit has led us to believe that nature is ours to conquer, yet the demonstrated risks of building in hazardous areas should teach us to respect nature and to remember that there is a difference between what we can do and what we should do.

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